Academic Freedom vs Academic Justice

English: Protesting academics in 2006 at UKZN

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sandra Y.L. Korn has proposed dispensing with academic freedom in favor of academic justice. Korn begins by presenting the example of Harvard psychology Professor Richard Hernstein’s 1971 article for Atlantic Monthly. In this article, Hernstein endorsed the view that intelligence is primarily hereditary and linked to race. Hernstein was attacked for this view, but defended himself and was defended by others via appeals to academic freedom. Korn seems to agree with Hernstein that the attacks against him infringed on academic freedom. However, Korn proposes that academic justice is more important than academic freedom.

Korn makes use of the American Association of University Professors view of academic freedom: “Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results.” However, Korn regards the “liberal obsession” with this freedom as misplaced.

Korn’s first argument seems to be as follows. Korn notes that there is not “full freedom” in research and publication. As Korn correctly notes, which proposals get funded and which papers get published is largely a matter of academic politics. Korn then notes that no academic question is free from the realities of politics. From this, Korn draws a conditional conclusion: “If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of ‘academic freedom’?”

It might be suspected that there is a false dilemma lurking here: either there is full academic freedom or restricting it on political values is acceptable. There is not full academic freedom. Therefore restricting it on political values is acceptable. The reason why this would be a false dilemma is that there is a considerable range of options between full academic freedom (which seems to be complete freedom) and such restrictions. As such, one could accept the obvious truth that there is not full (complete) freedom while also legitimately rejecting that academic freedom should be restricted on the proposed grounds.

To use the obvious analogy to general freedom of expression, the fact that people do not possess full freedom of expression (after all, there are limits on expression) does not entail that politically based restrictions should thus be accepted. After all, there are many alternatives between full freedom and the specific restrictions being proposed.

To be fair to Korn, no such false dilemma might exist. Instead, Korn might be reasoning that because the reality is such that political values restrict academic expression it follows that adding additional restrictions is not problematic. To re-use the analogy to general free expression, the reasoning would that since there are already limits on free expression, more restrictions are acceptable. This could be seen as a common practice fallacy, but perhaps it could be justified by showing that the additional restrictions are warranted. Sorting this out requires considering what Korn is proposing.

In place of the academic freedom standard, Korn proposes “a more rigorous standard: one of ‘academic justice.’ When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.”

While Korn claims that this is a more rigorous standard, it merely seems to be more restrictive. There is also the rather obvious problem of presenting an account of what it is for research to promote or justify oppression in a way that is rigorous and, more importantly, accurate. After all, “oppression” gets thrown around with some abandon in academic contexts and can be a rather vague notion. In order to decide what is allowed and what is not, Korn proposes that students, faculty and workers should organize in order to “to make our universities look as we want them to do.” While that sounds somewhat democratic, there is still the rather important concern about what standards will be used.

While there are paradigm cases (like the institutionalized racism of pre-civil rights America), people do use the term “oppression” to refer to what merely offends them. In fact, Korn makes reference to the offensiveness of a person’s comment as grounds for removing a professor from a faculty position.

The obvious danger is that the vagueness of this principle could be used to suppress and oppress research that vocal or influential people find offensive. There is also the obvious concern that such a principle would yield a political hammer with which to beat down those who present dissenting or unpopular views. For example, suppose a researcher finds legitimate evidence that sexual orientation is strongly influenced by choice and is accused of engaging research that promotes oppression because her research runs counter to an accepted view among certain people. As another example, imagine a faculty member who holds conservative views that some might find offensive, such as the view that people should work for their government support. This person could be seen as promoting oppression of the poor and thus be justly restricted by this principle.

Interestingly, Korn does present an example of a case in which a Harvard faculty member was asked not to return on the basis of objections against remarks that had been made. This would seem to indicate that Korn’s proposal might not be needed. After all, if academic freedom does not provide protection against being removed or restricted on these grounds, then there would seem to be little or no need to put in place a new principle. To use an analogy, if people can already be silenced for offensive speech, there is no need to restrict freedom of speech with a new principle—it is already restricted. At least at Harvard.

In closing, I am certainly in favor of justice and even more in favor of what is morally good. As such, I do endorse holding people morally accountable for their actions and statements. However, I do oppose restrictions on academic freedom for the same reason I oppose restrictions on the general freedom of expression (which I have written about elsewhere). In the case of academic freedom, what should matter is whether the research is properly conducted and whether or not the claims are well-supported. To explicitly adopt a principle for deciding what is allowed and what is not based on ideological views would, as history shows, have a chilling effect on research and academics. While the academic system is far from perfect, flawed research and false claims do get sorted out—at least fairly often. Adding in a political test would not seem to help with reaching the goal of truth.

As far as when academic freedom should be restricted, I also go with my general view of freedom of expression: when an action creates enough actual harm to warrant limiting the freedom. So, merely offending people is not enough to warrant restrictions—even if people are very offended. Actually threatening people or engaging in falsification of research results would be rather different matters and obviously not protected by academic freedom.

As such, I am opposed to Korn’s modest proposal to impose more political restrictions on academic freedom. As Korn notes, there are already many restrictions in place—and there seem to be no compelling reasons to add more.

 

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  1. That is frightening.

    Could Nietzsche, who certainly is sexist and at times racist, get his work published under this proposal?

    Of course, when you set a precedent, that is, that politically incorrect work gets censured, what is defined as politically incorrect can and will change with time and fashion and so in 20 more years given that precedent, they can censure anything which critizes the thought of Ayn Rand, who by the accidents and contingencies of history has then become the new orthodoxy.

    It’s better not to censure academic work.

  2. Back to Nietzsche.

    As anyone who has ever read Nietzsche knows, it’s hard to be more illiberal: he’s sexist, elitist, anti-democratic, at times racist, at times in favor of slavery.

    Nietzsche offends all our liberal pieties. On the plus side, he’s an incredibly acute psychologist, very witty, a brilliant critic of conventional morality and of religion, with an almost infallible eye for the lies we liberals (I count myself among the liberals) tell ourselves and with a Dionysian message of life-affirmation, which speaks to many of us in this age of chronic depression.

    Frankly, I don’t see how we can separate the illiberal Nietzsche from the cultural critic. Nietzsche’s mind seemed to have fired ideas, without any censorship as to political correctness or to pleasing conventional mores and if the illiberal Nietzsche had been censured, the cultural critic would have dried up, sadly for readers.

    Very few of us are Nietzsche, but I imagine that from time to time others with similar personalities enter academic life, minds full of brilliant ideas, some of them illiberal and some of them iconoclastic and worth considering. If one censures future Nietzsches for being shockingly illiberal, one will undoubtedly censure many future iconoclasts.

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